St Helens Cross Kelloe

St Helens Cross Kelloe

This extraordinary piece of English Romanesque Art played a very significant part of my spiritual nurture. It is located in the Norman Church where my faith was encouraged and sustained. I was gald to have this image sent to me by a local photographer, Trevor Smith.

Here is a longer description of the piece:

Reliquary cross Kelloe Parish Church

Grey Sandstone; broken and repaired; h i.860 m, w 420mm, d 145 mm  c.1200; St Helen’s Church, Kelloe, County Durham

The cross was found in 1854 built into the south wall of the chancel, three of its arms broken, sections of the ‘wheel’ missing and the shaft broken in two. It was crudely repaired and set in the north wall of the chancel at floor level. It was taken out in 1894 by William Anelay Ltd for conservation.

The top of the shaft narrows and is crowned by a perforated splayed cross, its arms once joined by a ‘wheel’. J.T. Lang, who devoted a detailed study to the cross (1977) draws convincing parallels between the iconography of the three scenes carved on the cross and that of Mosan metalwork. These scenes depict the legend of the Invention of the True Cross, in which the patroness of the church, St Helen of Helena, played the central role. In medieval times she was believed, quite wrongly, to have been a native of England.

The story begins with the lower relief, which conflates several episodes. St Helena is shown with a drawn sword to compel the Jew Judas (the future St Cyriacus) to dig in search of the cross. Judas is depicted with a very long beard and a cap, which in medieval art denotes a Jew . He holds a spade with which he has dug up an old cemetery, discovering corpses and three crosses. The True Cross was identified by its bringing a dead body, about to be buried, to life; this is the small nude figure shown next to Judas. The two other crosses were burnt in the fire, symbolized by flame-like forms at Helena’s feet. The True Cross is in the centre with a label on top on which there was perhaps a painted inscription identifying it: (?) Lignum Domini (‘The Lord’s wood). It is flanked by the sun and the moon, taken from the iconography of the crucifixion.

The next relief shows two figures in long robes and with diadems on their hands. One is holding a cross, the other a small sword (Lang, 1977, p.113). Most scholars agree that the first is St Helena but opinions vary as to the identity of the other, who is thought to be the Church (Saxl, 1954, p.68); Sheba (Boase, 1953, pp 233-4); and even Constantine, Helena’s son (Lang p.113), although they both appear to be women.

The third scene represents the Dream of Constantine, the first Christian emporer, in which an angel appeared to him and, pointing to a cross, said: ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ In the relief these words, somewhat abridged, are inscribed on the horizontal arms of the cross: IN HOC VINCES.

The figure style of the reliefs is characterized by rounded faces with placid expressions, and turbulent, flowing draperies. There is a great deal of ornamental detail: delicate leaves, beading and fluting on the vertical arms of the cross.  The carved edge at the left of the cross is covered with a beaded leaf design. The right edge and the back of the cross are plain.

There is a round cavity in the centre of the cross-head deep enough to contain a small relic, which would have been covered by a transparent crystal, probably set in gold. There are numerous other oval settings for glass, crystal or semi-precious stones. When painted and studded with these jewel-like adornments, the cross must have looked rich and impressive. The most likely relic to have been in this unusual reliquary was a fragment of what was, at the time, thought to be the True Cross.

The two carved faces suggest that the cross originally stood against the south wall of the chancel, where it was found in 1854. The main carved side was no doubt facing the congregation, the edge carved with foliage, towards the altar. The iron hoops just below the cross-head were no doubt for the insertion of candle-holders, the candle light illuminating the focal point, the relic in its rich setting.    G.Z.

Bibliography Lang, 1977, pp.105-19, pls. V-VI

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